Monday, April 10, 2006

Richard Berry cont'd

From the L.A. Reader, 1981, by Bill Reed

Though it may seem inappropriate to memorialize an anthem devoted to anarchic eruption, this year [1981] nevertheless marks the silver anniversary of the composing and first recording of “Louie Louie,” an enduring source of inspiration to rock ‘n’ roll heavy metalists and young punk garage band upstarts everywhere. With its haunting (make that “mind-numbing”), proto stomp first few bars (duh-duh-duh, DUH-DUH), it is arguably the most recognizable of all rock songs. Without question, “Louie Louie” set the pace for such three-chord, scuzz-rock classics to follow as “Wooly Bully, “Hanky Panky,” “96 Tears,” “Surfin’ Bird,” and scores of other songs whose principal virtue was acting as a safe outlet for their young listeners to go harmlessly mad for 2:32 seconds. (I once knew a girl who locked herself in the bathroom and did a secret dance of wild abandon whenever “Louie Louie” came on the radio--- an action over which she claimed she had no control.)

More than forty versions [that was in 1981; as of the 21st century, that number is significantly higher] of the venerable rocker have been recorded in the United States alone; and aside from the song’s most famous version by the Kingsmen, other performers who’ve had a go at “Louie” over the years include Frank Zappa (aided and abetted by a full symphony orchestra and pipe organ), the Beach Boys and, most recently, Barry White, who last summer got a modest hit from his efforts. There is also an outstanding reggae effort by Toots and the Maytals.

“Louie Louie” was the last song ever recorded by Iggy Popp and the Stooges (available on the Metallic ‘KO lp); and it was one of the first releases by this year’s fastest-rising fringe rockers, Black Flag. Sometime in the near future a local label (Rhino) plans to release a collection entitled The Best of “Louie Louie,” sure to contain the classic interpretation by the Kingsmen, who had a No. 1 hit with the song in 1963---a recording that set off a national craze (more a teen rite of passage, actually) of trying to decipher the chart-topper’s supposedly dirty “leer-ics.” But long before that Oregon-based group mined gold from “Louie” x 2, its writer, Richard Berry, had a recorded success of his own with the song at almost the very dawning of the rock and roll era. It was therefore a genuine thrill for me when I got a chance to talk with the man who actually sat down and wrote this timeless Le Sacre du Printemps of punk.

“I wrote “Louie Louie” in a dressing room at the Harmony Club in Anaheim,” Berry told me. “They used to have country and western dances there most of the time, but on Sunday nights they leased the club to Mexican bands. Around the early part of 1956, I was working for this outfit, Ricky Rivera and the Rhythm Rockers, playing keyboards. They used to do all this Latin stuff, and they had this one number, ‘El Loco Cha-Cha-Cha,’ and it had that figure duh-duh-duh, DUH-DUH, over and over again. I kept hearing it backstage, and it used to just jam me up, and so I said, “I could write a song to this.” So I was sitting back in the dressing room waiting for them to bring me on, and I got the words “Louie Louie,” and the rest just kind of fell into place. Years later when people asked me about writing the song, I could’ve just lied and said, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew this guy named Louie,’ but there wasn’t anybody around named Louie. I just pulled it out of the air. I pictured the guy singing as being like the guy in the song, ‘One for My Baby’---you know, 'Set ‘em up, Joe.’ The bartender’s name was Louie, and the guy singing is about to go across the sea, and he’s telling his story to Louie.”

For all practical purposes, forty-six-year-old Berry is a Los Angeles native son. Although he was born in New Orleans, Berry and his parents relocated to Southern California when he was two. Berry’s father, who died in 1969, was a day laborer; his mother worked in a laundry. Although Berry is black, the first kind of music he responded to wasn’t rhythm and blues or jazz, but instead, as he informed me, “the old Country and Western guys like Bob Wills, T. Texas Tyler, and Ernest Tubb.“ Only when Berry entered Jefferson High School in Watts, in 1950, did he begin to perk up his ears to the sounds of black musicians, (“The first record by a black artist to get to me was Nat “King” Cole’s “Straighten up and Fly Right.”)

My music teacher at Jefferson was San Brown,” Berry told me. “He’s kind of famous for all the professional musicians he turned out, but,” he laughs, “he flunked me three straight times in my harmony classes.” Perhaps Berry’s increasing involvement with a less theoretical form of harmony caused this problem because it was around this time that he began to “hang around school doing some street-corner singing.” At first it was just for fun. Everybody was doing it; but after a while Berry and some friends began to take their pastime more seriously.

“I went to school with Cornel Gunter, Obie Jessie, and Pete Fox,” Berry said. (Gunter eventually ended up with the Coasters, and Jessie, and Jessie, as ‘Young Jessie,’ went on to become a somewhat legendary figure on the Los Angeles r&b scene.) We formed a group called the Flamingos, not to be confused with the Flamingos---we had the name first. At that time our idol was Jessie Belvin. He Wrote 'Earth Angel.' I begin to sneak out of the church choir to join up with the other guys at a talent show they used to have at the old Lincoln Theater at Twenty-third Street Central Avenue hosted by the really popular deejay Hunter Hancock; and we won first prize almost every time. We used to imitate a group that was big then, the Hollywood Four Flames.”

“Finally, we said, let's try and make a record," the easygoing rocker told me. "We went to the phone book and looked up record companies, and we came across Modern Records. They had everyone, including B. B. King and Ike and Tina Turner. We started recording for them, and did a number of cuts-things like 'She a Wants to Rock,' which was produced by Leiber and Stoller, and 'Gettin' High.' Most of them were regional hits that sold forty to fifty thousand copies. This was around 1953, and we called ourselves the Flairs. It was also around this time that I sang with Etta James on the hit, 'Roll With Me, Henry' "---later cleaned up lyrically with "Roll" replaced by "Dance," (Berry also guested as the low- Low-LOW voice on the Coasters' classic: 1955 recording "Riot in Cel1 Block Number Nine.")

But the young doo-wopper's happy association with Modern Records was somewhat short-lived. "The record companies," Berry said, "should have been fairer with all of us. When I look back, nobody bothered to tell me my legal rights. I didn't know anything about BMI when I was with Modern Records. I always used to see some other guy's name on my records as co-writer for songs I'd written myself. And I said what's that doing on there? And they said, ‘Well, if the distributors see our names on there they'll go to work on the record.' I didn't know they were getting part of the money. No one had ever questioned the practice before me. I finally ended suing over about sixty-some songs that I had written but that I never got royalties for. The case rolled on for about five years, and eventually I settled out of court, although no one on their side admitted any wrongdoing. But I was able to record 'Louie Louie' for another company, Flip Records, in 1956."

Throughout the late fifties and early sixties Berry continued to record with varying success. (Only briefly did he ever hold down nonmusical jobs-once in, of all places, a falsies factory, and another time in a record-pressing plant.) Also he toured extensively throughout this time; by and large because of the success of his 1956 recording of ''Louie.'' "I worked on the road with the great Bobby Bland and Junior Parker. That was my spiritual awakening. Before those guys," Berry admitted, "I didn't know what soul was. But those blues guys totally an amazed me. I used to work with Roy Brown, Floyd Dixon, Rosco Gordon, Etta James, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, and all those folks when I toured all through the South."
From the if-only-I'd-known-then department comes the following incident in the songwriter/singer's career---for he somewhat woefully said, "In 1957 I was getting ready to get married. I needed some bucks; and so I sold the record-sales rights to 'Louie Louie.' This was six years before the big hit by the Kingsmen came out, so it was obviously not for a whole lot of money. But thank God the I did manage to hang on to the rights for radio and television play! The rest of the rights went to a guy named Max Feirtag." (I phoned Feirtag to secure a quote for this article, but when I identified myself as a reporter, he promptly hung up on me without so much as a by-your-leave, or how's your sister?)

Around the early sixties, fed up with what be calls the ''record-business rat race" and with the constant touring, Berry settled into a nearly non-stop, twenty-year run of playing at various clubs around Southern California, California, a routine whose regularity was broken only once, but significantly, in 1963 when the Kingsmen recorded "Louie Louie" and turned it into an international hit. It was like found money.

'"I wasn't at all hard up in 1963 when the Kingsmen record came out, Berry told me. "But in 1965, there was along wait when that first check finally came in. . .for over $7,000. Three days later another check came for $4,000. I didn't go ape or anything. I just kept playing the clubs and put the money in the bank." Berry waffled on the subject of how much money the song continues to bring him. He said: "Let's put it this way: During the bad years it's enough to buy a good used car, and during the good years it's enough for a good new car." (The song's use in Animal House must have temporarily brightened his fortunes.)

An interesting sidebar to the 1963 success of Berry's most popular song is the flap caused by the alleged dirty lyrics to "Louie Louie." Breathed there an American teen in the sixties who didn't sit around for hours, ears glued to the phonograph trying to make out the supposed smutty scansion of the song amongst all the Kingsmen clatter? It was a pluperfect example of the mass hysteria and delusion of crowds when young rock 'n' rollers all over cocked an ear for words that Berry insists simply were not to be heard. (The most popular supposition is that the line "I pinned a rose in her hair" was actually "I shot a wad in her hair.")

Richard Berry adamantly insists, "There were never any dirty lyrics to 'Louie Louie': In 1963, the FBI had us down to the bureau because of some sort of FCC investigation. The song had been banned in a couple of states. What was finally uncovered," Berry laughed, "was that because you really couldn't hear the words too well in the Kingsmen version, a rumor got started on college campuses that the song had dirty lyrics. This was passed on from school to school. Then somebody mimeographed what they were hearing, and then somebody else mimeographed what they were hearing. And it just went on and on. But the 'Louie, Louie' I wrote and recorded was clean; and so was the Kingsmen's version. It never fails when I play a club, someone will come up and ask me what are the dirty lyrics to 'Louie Louie: So when Barry White did it I said, 'At last, people will finally get to hear the lyrics,' because the words are so audible on his version."

Berry must've had to fend off that recurring question a lot of times, for he proudly (but a little wearily) ticked off his club history in the Los Angeles area: "Up until last year I worked constantly in places like Lakewood, E1 Monte, and Downey. I worked at one club in Gardena, the Casino, for four-and-a-half years. We made history there. And there were other places like H. D. Hover's Century Restaurant out near the airport, the Jolly Roger in El Segundo, a place called the Caravan for four years, Filthy Mc Nasty's on Sunset and in the [San Fernando] Valley, and the Swing Club in Studio City. That was my favorite! There was also a place in La Puente where Frank Zappa says he always came to see me when he was a kid! Five or six years ago I performed at some of Art Laboe's Oldies shows when he held them where the Comedy Store is now." It must have been like old home week, because in the mid-fifties he also took part in Laboe's shows when there was an early show at E1 Monte Legion Stadium and then a later run-through the same evening all the way down in Long Beach. But wherever the keyboardist and his quintet played, the highlight of the show was always "Louie Louie."

The highlight of all those years on the club circuit was visits, on different occasions, by jazz greats Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane. Dolphy, around the early nineteen-sixties, sat in with Berry and his band at several clubs around town, seemingly undaunted by the switchover to employing his avant-garde sax style in a rock 'n' roll format. As for the appearance by Coltrane, Berry recalled: "It was really phenomenal. My band was playing an after-hours jam at this tinky little club in Gardena, around 1962, when in walks John Coltrane with his saxophone. This was about five o'clock in the morning; and he did a few numbers with us. Just some twelve-bar blues. He is absolutely me all-time favorite musician. Always was; always will be. I don’t have the Dolphy sessions on tape; but I did record the Coltrane session, because I used to tape just about everything I did. In the process of moving around a lot, I’ve lost track of the tape. I’ve gone through stuff for the last couple of years looking for it, but so far it’s still missing. I hope I can find it sometime.“ I told Berry I hope he did, too; the tape of a performance of jazz giant Coltrane playing within a rock and roll format is surely one for the ages. Also, I warned him that when this piece of information reached print, his phone would, doubtlessly, begin to ring off the wall.)

Of the anomaly of a black musician playing mostly white clubs (which Berry mostly did), the seemingly stoical musician said, "Usually there was no problem; but sometimes I'd play a place and when blacks showed up, I'd get fired. I tried to tell the owners that even if they replaced me with Danny and the Juniors, the blacks wouldn't leave," he laughed. “But still I'd get canned. There was one place I told the owner the only way he could get the blacks to go away was to close the place for two weeks, lower the ceiling, and turn it into a Country and Western bar. I was joking. But do you know, that's exactly what the guy did," said Berry, shaking his head in amazement.

Perhaps one other reason for the veteran musician's low profile nationally these last two decades is his fear of flying. He told me, “After years of not being bothered at all by flying, suddenly in 1960 on a plane flight out of Oakland I totally freaked out. Petrified. I didn't fly again until 1977 when I had to go to Brazil to work with my friend Etta James. I actually had to have the mother of a friend of mine fly with me and hold my hand all the way there. It was my first time on a jet. I was able to come back by myself. But frankly," he adds, "I haven't flown since then."

This year all Berry really wants to do is write music. "Right now, "he said, “I'm mostly composing ballads. Barry White may record one of my new songs, ‘Lost in Paradise,’ for his next album," Why the shift away from performing? "Look," he said, “I haven't minded at all talking about 'Louie Louie' with you this afternoon---in fact, I loved it. But, frankly, after six nights a week, for twenty years, I'm beginning to get a little tired of singing it.” He paused a beat, then added: “After all, Paul Revere and the Raiders only had to do it for a year." back to main blog

Copyright © 2006 Bill Reed